Tag Archives: Gene Pitney

Montague Terrace (In Blue) & Such a Small Love – Scott Walker

The Walker Brothers’ first three albums had included occasional compositions by band members Scott (born Noel Scott Engel) and John (born John Maus), but those were largely lost in the midst of the covers picked out for them by Maus and producer Johnny Franz, some chosen well, others less so. For a true head-scratching moment, search YouTube for the Walkers performing Land of 1000 Dances live: Scott was not born to sing “Mashed potato, alligator, do the snake, do the hippie shake” for a crowd of teenie-boppers, and even as a young man he was self-aware enough to know it. His body language bespeaks a soul-deep wish to be somewhere – anywhere – else.

And so he only really starts to figure as a songwriter on his first solo album, Scott, although even here his own work represents just one of the album’s interweaving strands; he also tackles contemporary pieces by Tim Hardin and Mann/Weill, a couple of Hollywood movie songs, and English translations of Jacques Brel chansons. The trick is how seamlessly they blend together, how of a piece with each other Walker and Franz make these songs sound.

Such a Small Love and Montague Terrace (In Blue) are the album’s standout Scott originals, and taken together, they say a lot about where Walker was at in 1967. Such a Small Love is most notable for the disquieting cloud of dissonant strings that hang over it throughout. They’re uncannily predictive of Walker’s great masterwork, The Electrician (from the Walker Brothers’ 1979 reunion album Nite Flights), which was over 10 years in the future. The song is a minor work, but here is the sound of Walker ambitiously attempting to create a style for himself whole cloth, and damn near achieving it at the first attempt.

Montague Terrace (In Blue) is a rather different animal. Its arrangement is on an even grander scale than that of Such a Small Love, with swirling strings, crashing cymbals and booming tympani, but the sources for it are more obvious: it’s a cross between Broadway, Hollywood and Gene Pitney-style melodrama. Its lyric, meanwhile, shows a heavy, but gauche, Brel influence: the verses are laden with metaphors and similes (“her thoughts lay cold like shattered stone”, etc), while lines like “his bloated, belching figure stomps” are best left unremarked upon.  Walker would later would absorb and assimilate Brel’s influence, but at this point he could still fall into pastiching.

Yet despite its lyrical clumsiness, the song is more than sturdy enough to bear the weight of its magnificent, enormous arrangement. And that chorus is the most glorious he ever wrote. In the long, strange career of Scott Walker, Montague Terace is a big moment, in every sense of the word.

Scott

Talking in Your Sleep – Crystal Gayle

My mum was a Crystal Gayle fan and I’ve got a nostalgic soft spot for her music. Heard at the right moment, in the right mood, her music – her voice, more specifically – can plug directly into something in me. I think she’s an amazing ballad singer who would be much more highly thought of if so many of her records weren’t quite so slick-sounding.

To appreciate her oeuvre you’ll have to be OK with a little corn, but frankly, corniness is almost the defining quality of seventies country-pop. Perhaps it’s the defining quality of country music generally. Maybe it’s only the rawness of the delivery of a Hank Williams loves song that makes certain music fans hear it as something fundamentally different to a Crystal Gayle song. Talking in Your Sleep (from the 1978 album When I Dream) is certainly a lyric that Hank would have understood.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that as the records in Nashville began to lose all their rough edges, they started to speak more loudly of opulence and expenses not being spared than of the emotion. It’s a well-worn story, but Chet Atkins, when asked what the Nashville sound was, would jingle the loose change in his pocket, with a clear implication. And for sure, the records that he (and other producers such as Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill) made with artists such as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline in the 1950s through to the 1960s played down roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel, and replaced them with massed choruses and orchestras. But they are positively skeletal compared to Crystal Gayle’s ballads in 1970s and early 1980s. (That Gayle’s oldest sister is country queen Loretta Lynn, an exponent of a much rootsier style, only makes Gayle’s place in the history and tradition of this music more fascinating.)

A song like Talking in Your Sleep, then, represents on one level the Hollywoodisation of country music. While the song reaches back into country tradition lyrically (singer lies awake watching sleeping partner, wonders if partner is in love with someone else – as I said, any worthwhile country singer from any era could sell that idea), its arrangement and production – which begins with just Gayle’s voice and string section and ends with harp glissandi – was specifically designed to cross over to a pop audience and capitalise on the success of the jazzified Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue from the previous year’s We Must Believe in Magic. Which it did, with ruthless, targeted efficiency.

That it succeeded so well is down to Gayle’s vocal and the quality of the writing. Talking in Your Sleep may be corn, but it’s very cunningly written corn, by transplanted Bristolian Roger Cook, who also wrote I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and the peerless Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart (if you’ve never Gene Pitney’s original recording, you must; it’s astonishing, melodramatic, over the top, and absolutely awesome). Producer Allen Reynolds, meanwhile, certainly knows how to cross over to the mainstream; he produced every Garth Brooks studio album from his debut up to the baffling Garth Brooks… In the Life of Chris Gaines (which was helmed by Don Was – though he probably hopes we’d forgotten that).

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Crystal Gayle, before her hair reached the floor

Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart – Gene Pitney

Gene Pitney – a boy-next-door type if you happen to live in well-heeled Hartford, Connecticut – seemed to lurch from one emotional crisis to the next, if his records are to be believed at least. From It Hurts to Be in Love to 24 Hours From Tulsa, few artists have relied on the melodramatic as heavily as the clean-cut Pitney.

A trip back to that well in 1967 resulted in a hit version of Something’s Gotten by Hold of My Heart, a song by the Two Rogers, Cook and Greenaway. It reached number 5 in the UK (and a decidedly modest 130 in the US), but he later hit the top spot with it when he featured on Marc Almond’s 1989 cover. All respect to the pair of them, but the original’s the one that should have reached number one. Almond sings his remake with a nod and a wink, and whether Pitney was aware of it or not (and seeing as he promoted it on Top of The Pops with Almond while wearing a white tuxedo and red bow tie it’s probable that he was), the song devolved into camp.

The original is not camp. It is a man caught between ecstasy and torment. Neither of which lends itself well to understatement, true, but the emotion in Pitney’s original is real enough. Structurally, the song is appropriately knotty. It takes so many twists and turns that just when you think it’s reached its climax, Pitney is buffeted by another wave of despair, elated by a new possibility, and his brittle, nasal voice reaches still higher, fighting to make itself against an orchestra, a  choir and a drummer who can’t stop himself playing triplet drum rolls.

In its rather old-fasioned Bacharachian pomp, it stood out in a year defined by the psychedelia of the Beatles, Hendrix and Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale (which shares its relentless piddly-piddly-piddly drum rolls). But it was Pitney’s last artistic hurrah. Until it resurfaced in 1989, Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart was his last top-ten hit in the UK and he was done as a commercial force by 1970, only Blue Angel hitting number 2 in Australia breaking the pattern of low placings. Pitney was a songwriter (he’d written Rubber Ball, He’s A Rebel and Hello Mary Lou) but lacking the writing rep of, say, Neil Sedaka he wasn’t able to maintain songwriting as a career until his time as a performer came round again. Instead, he was lost to the oldies circuit, so it was no disgrace that he willingly participated in Almond’s desecration of his finest moment; after all, it provided him with a chance at damn near 50, white-haired but eternally boyish, to stand in front of a teenage audience in the Top of the Pops studio and all that cool stuff, just one more time.

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Gene Pitney in 1967,